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WASHINGTON -- Afghan military and police forces had higher numbers of battlefield casualties in a "difficult and bloody summer" of fighting the Taliban insurgency, the American general overseeing the war said Thursday.

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon that the Afghan losses are "an area of important focus" for the newly installed U.S. commander in Kabul, Army Gen. Scott Miller. Votel did not say how many Afghan troops have been killed this year but noted that Afghan officials have said the casualties will not deter them.

Asked directly whether the number of Afghan casualties had increased this year over 2017, Votel said, "It's my understanding that it is increasing."

At the request of the Afghan government, the U.S. military command in Kabul does not publicly reveal numbers of Afghan combat losses. But Votel's comments suggest the trend is worrisome, even if the Afghan government continues to insist that it can sustain this pace of casualties.

At the end of 2014, U.S. forces stopped taking a direct role in ground combat against the Taliban and shifted to what they call an advise-and-assist role. Since then, Afghan forces have taken heavy losses even though they outnumber the Taliban and are supported by U.S. forces. The Taliban benefit from sanctuary in parts of neighboring Pakistan.

Votel said the U.S. was still trying to get Afghan forces to lessen their dependence on what he called "poorly defended," vulnerable checkpoints, which the Taliban regularly and successfully target. For at least six years, U.S. military officials have tried to convince the Afghan authorities that these checkpoints are too difficult to defend and should be abandoned. The Afghans have largely refused, saying the checkpoints are needed to protect the population.

"When we do look at the casualties that the Afghans are absorbing, we do link them back largely to these more defensive, static positions that they have difficulty supporting," Votel said.

Shortly before Votel began speaking by telephone from his headquarters in Tampa, Fla., Miller's command announced that one American service member was killed in action in Afghanistan. The announcement provided no details, and Votel declined to say anything beyond calling it a combat loss.

Votel said more would be disclosed after the service member's family was notified of the death. It was the seventh U.S. combat death in Afghanistan this year. The most recent had been on Sept. 3 when Army Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Bolyard, 42, of Thornton, W.Va., was shot to death by a member of the Afghan national police in Logar province.

Separately, Pakistan's former military ruler Pervez Musharraf warned that a proxy war between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan would break out in Afghanistan if U.S. forces exit the country.

Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup before stepping down after protests against his rule in 2008, said Pakistan wants a peaceful solution to the 17-year-old conflict next door. But the former four-star general also blamed India for using Afghanistan as a base to foment separatist insurgencies and attacks in Pakistan. In interviews after leaving office, he has hinted that Pakistan used proxy forces in Afghanistan to counter its larger neighbor India.

"You can expect a proxy war in Afghanistan if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, definitely, 100 percent," Musharraf said in an interview at his penthouse apartment in Dubai, where he now lives in self-exile.

War-ravaged Afghanistan has long been a battleground for the broader geopolitical rivalry between India and Pakistan. Musharraf's comments underscore the fear of Indian encirclement that motivates Pakistan and its powerful military, which has ruled the country for almost half of its 71-year existence. U.S. President Donald Trump has stoked those concerns by pushing for New Delhi to take on a larger role in Afghanistan as Washington looks to exit America's longest war.

Musharraf said "India should remain out" of Afghanistan, which Pakistan sees as its area of influence. He also warned that even if U.S. forces depart after a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, India and Pakistan would likely move in by supporting rival factions in Afghanistan.

"The situation will return to Taliban versus Northern Alliance, and in that Pakistan and India will fight a proxy war," he said, alluding to a military coalition that fought against the Taliban in the 1990s and early 2000s.

India's Foreign Ministry declined to comment. Indian officials, who frequently blame Pakistan for cross-border attacks in both Afghanistan and India, have long said their presence in Afghanistan is focused on development and infrastructure.

Information for this article was contributed by Robert Burns of The Associated Press and by Chris Kay of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 10/05/2018

Print Headline: General fears for Afghan forces

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